Monday, 29 April 2013

Woffinden, Bradford, Kerr & Shooting Yourself In The Foot

ITEM: As the only British representative in the grand prix series this year, Tai Woffinden ought to be enjoying universal support from British fans. Yet his outstanding early season form, carried over into the SGPs, has been met with a wide variety of responses, including some who really don't seem to care one jot that he's representing their country on the world stage.

Why is this? The obvious answer is his Australian upbringing, that British fans haven't really taken to him as one of their own, despite him being born in the UK to British parents, and nailing his colours firmly to the mast at an early age. Having spent his formative years in Western Australia, Tai speaks with a pronounced Australian accent, enough to put anybody off, but it's unfair to blame him for that. And, yes, he spends his winters down under, but this is understandable, given a good deal of his life - friends, family, familiar territory - can be found there, and the odd track outing helps him to keep sharp.

It's true that he hasn't helped himself in this regard in the past - having the Aussie flag on the inside of his handlebars, making the odd outburst on Twitter about switching nationalities, and he once committed the heinous crime of helping out the Australian team in the World Cup, even going so far as to wear branded teamwear while doing so.

Even with all that going on, I'm not sure there are a huge number of those who aren't getting behind Tai that actually believe he's not properly British. Yes, they may use it as an easy quip, a get-out to avoid explaining other reasons, but only the most jingoistic, anti-Australian British speedway fan wouldn't welcome a rider of Tai's ability competing under the union jack.

Muddying the waters is the British fans' weird penchant for backing their own clubs' riders over British rivals. It's not a new thing - I was astonished when I first became a speedway fan that Oxford or Cradley Heath fans would rather cheer for Nielsen or Gundersen than Tatum or Wigg at World Finals - and it still continues to this day, with Poole fans so eager to back their Australians that they may as well hoist the southern cross over stadium and play Waltzing Matilda before every meeting. Tai suffers from this as much as any British rider of the past, but probably more so given he's ridden for just three clubs in his short career so far. Outside of Wolverhampton, Scunthorpe, and Hoddesdon, British speedway fans may choose their local heroes over the British representative, no matter what he says or does.

Probably the biggest reason fans have yet to get behind the lone Brit is the spiky personality he has displayed in the past. Put simply, and this does seem to be the prevailing opinion of Tai from most Elite League fans outside of the WV postcode, he's not very likeable. This hasn't stopped riders from being world class, and even supported by a majority of their countrymen, in the past but it does make a huge difference when you switch from friendly and humble British representatives like Harris, Nicholls, and Loram, to enfant terribles like Tai and Lewis Bridger.

Given time, and with a careful managing of his image, Tai will win people over. He's still young, and the mistakes of youth tend to fade with time. Until then, he'll have to be patient, and his fans, too, will need to be tolerant. He's doing all the right things right now - let's hope this carries on for some time yet.

ITEM: Tony Mole is at it again. Having already resurrected speedway at Workington and Birmingham in the last fifteen years, he's trying to bring back speedway at Odsal Stadium, Bradford, which last saw bikes take to the track in 1997.

While there are a number of difficulties to overcome, the chances of the revival succeeding look fair to good, and it would be a massive shot in the arm for speedway in west Yorkshire, which was served so well by Halifax and Bradford over the years, as well as occasional speedways at Castleford and Leeds.

I do wonder, though, with Mole - respectfully - not getting any younger, if this isn't a chance for the powers-that-be to try a new approach to speedway ownership. A franchise agreement, with the promoting rights held jointly by all BSPA member clubs, and thus all risks spread equally, would enable them to try new methods of promoting.

With a large, dormant fanbase waiting to be tapped into, as well as a wide catchment area of 1.5million people (Britain's fourth largest urban area), initiatives that may seem daring or too off-the-wall to be tried at existing tracks might find a testing field at Odsal. Speedway is by no means unique in this regard, but regular fans are often strangely distrustful of special offers, and season ticket holders grumble that they don't receive the discounts offered to casual fans to try and increase the crowd figures, and therefore income, which are so vital to the continued existence of tracks up and down the country.

It's pie-in-the-sky stuff, as is so much of the fantasies I present in this blog, but the traditional way of doing things is a coping strategy at best. A blockbuster re-opening like Bradford seems too good an opportunity to pass up.

ITEM: Lewis Kerr has had a fantastic start to the season - all the more remarkable given he didn't have a solid team place until the middle of March, although he had agreed to share a reserve spot with Lewis Blackbird at Leicester before Newcastle offered him one outright.

His success is testament to Newcastle's recent policy of giving British youth a chance - last year they signed both Worrall brothers, having had Richie Worrall and Joe Haines in their 2011 line-up. This season they are tracking five British riders and should be applauded for that approach, which is working out fine on the track.

Kerr is a graduate of King's Lynn's National League side, and shows the importance of investing in youth. Elite League sides Poole and Belle Vue have operated teams at this level in recent seasons, and currently Coventry are competing alongside the Young Stars in the NL.

Running a side at this level is no guarantee of unearthing talent, of course, although Poole & Belle Vue's brief forays did provide Kyle Newman, Kyle Howarth, and Jason Garrity with their first fledgling steps into league racing. It should be supported by all, because if we are to get to the point where our leagues can look solid and largely homegrown, we need an army of Lewis Kerrs to fill those places.

For now, let's encourage and congratulate him on his efforts, give him the time and space to grow, and hope more Premier League sides take a chance on National League riders like Robert Branford, James Sarjeant, Lee Smart, Charles Wright, and others, rather than a struggling Aussie/German/Finn out of their depth and taking up a space they really don't deserve.

ITEM: Several Coventry fans have reported going to the cinema this past weekend and seeing an advert for the Bees, up there on the big screen. This is a fantastic - and I dare say not cheap - effort by the Coventry promotion to bring in new fans from the thousands who obviously have enough disposable income that they'll spend it on sitting in a popcorn-filled, over-heated windowless coffin, enjoying the latest "blockbusters" served up by Hollywood.

The advert was produced by Clean Cut Sports, who film every Coventry meeting, as well as at tracks up and down the country, owned by speedway enthusiast and evangelist Peter Ballinger. Peter also films at Coventry Blaze ice hockey, utilising modern technology to provide webcasts and send speedy footage to local news outlets, spreading the gospel of British ice hockey.

I dare say that the advert - which I've not been lucky enough to see yet - and exciting clips from the tracks where Clean Cut (and equivalent producers across the leagues) film would find quite the audience on YouTube, but unfortunately Clean Cut are prevented from posting it.

YouTube is one of the biggest success stories of the internet era. Careers are made from videos going viral, and it's an essential tool for any kind of entertainment business to drive interest and income to their product. I can't back this up in any quantitative manner, but I would almost guarantee that there have been people who have gone along to see speedway at their local tracks in the past - or at least tuned in to watch it on Sky - because of an exciting clip they've been linked to on YouTube. It's a no-brainer, ys?

Except, for some baffling reason, Clean Cut, Re-Run, and the rest, are still prevented from using their footage like this. And have been since the start of last season when a directive from GoSpeed International - owned by Terry Russell - and presumably backed by the BSPA, outlawed it.

It may be that Sky, having paid for the rights to show Elite (and some Premier) League speedway, don't want any other action being available on any other platform. I find this unlikely, but that may be the case. A simple look around YouTube, though, finds footage (illicitly) captured from Sky broadcasts and posted on the site, so it doesn't seem they're too bothered about this kind of thing.

So I'd like to know why. I'd like to know why, having already taken a healthy cut of the Sky deal, GSI places such restrictions on those trying to eke a living out of a sport they love. I'd like to know why speedway, short of fans and with an ageing fanbase, doesn't exploit one of the internet's most free and easy to use tools to promote itself to a wider audience. And I'd like to know why we need a GSI anymore, and just who it benefits.

I won't hold my breath.

1 comment:

  1. Who it benefits? Well like everything else TR has been involved in over the years, it benefits him, that's who. I suspect the restrictions that have been placed are because GSI can see a further money-making path in the future - charging the companies that film at tracks to do so, and charging them further for every minute of footage they release out there into the big wide (internet) world. Speedway will of course emerge the loser, but no more so than it has done already, or than individual riders who enjoyed the patronage of Russell in the past, only to be dropped without ceremony once their careers were over - have already lost.

    As for Tai - he's alright by me. He's doing a heck of a lot better so far than any other Brit has done in years, lets face it! Bridger has earnt a lot of respect over the past 12 months, too, it was just a shame that the circumstances that made him take a long hard look at himself were as they were.